Bruce LaBruce Retrospective at MoMA
& why Super 8 1/2 is his seminal film
Illustrations by Karen Bu
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has been battling harsh criticism recently not only for “its overall direction but also about its director”1 Glenn D. Lowry; with the New York Times describing the museum as “cold and corporate … and often out of touch with the sensibilities of contemporary artists.” The expansion of MoMA for example, “which will create an ‘art bay’ open to West 53rd Street,” has made New York magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz call the museum a “business-driven carnival;” while the current “Bjork” retrospective has been described as “embarrassing”, “disappointing” and a “disaster” by the New Yorker, The Economist and Vulture magazines respectively. So when I read on Next– the free weekly self-appointed “New York’s Gay Guide” that MoMA was organizing a retrospective of the films by Bruce LaBruce at the end of April, I couldn’t help but wonder in awe at the museum’s staunch strategy of marching to the beats of their own drum. As Mr. Lowry explained: “If we were being criticized for being timid, that would upset me. But if we’re being criticized because we’ve engaged spectacle or we engage popular culture in interesting ways,” the NY Times says “then (criticism) does not worry him deeply.”
Rajendra Roy, film curator at MoMA and responsible for the Bruce LaBruce retrospective seems to follow the overall vision of the museum’s director verbatim. The large majority of LaBruce’s work, including all his nine feature films and a handful of shorts, were screened during the ten-day-retrospective from April 23rd until May 2nd. I got to see eight of his features and in hindsight, realized of the importance of his second film, Super 8 1/2 as a pivotal point in Bruce LaBruce’s career, testament of the audacity and perseverance that defines his work; the films of one of the most irreverent postmodern “queer auters” of the past two decades. Given the interesting timing of this event, which Next described as an invitation to “a new generation to be reminded that assimilation is not every queer’s ultimate goal,” I am also drawing on the social differences between the time when Super 8 1/2 was born and the current climate of “homonormativity,” as Bruce LaBruce himself calls it; to gain some perspective on the changes that have shaped the director’s films and how this overall theme seems to fit right into MoMA’s reasons for organizing a film retrospective that could only add more piles of “dirty laundry” to the museum, as it struggles to convince critics of its purpose in time.
Before getting into LaBruce’s 1994 sophomore feature Super 8 1/2, a film he described in the Q&A following the screening at MoMA as “my red-head step child,” and in order to understand the importance of this film in relation to the rest of his works, it is fitting to go back three years in time when No Skin Off My Ass, his debut feature, was released. As the press release of MoMA states: “Hailed by the critic Amy Taubin as “sweeter than Warhol, subtler than Kuchar, sexually more explicit than Van Sant,”” No Skin Off My Ass— heavily influenced in style by the French New Wave of the 1960s; a style he appropriated in typical postmodern fashion while pursuing a Masters degree in film theory at York University in Toronto, is the result of Bruce’s DIY aesthetic and the little money (US$14,000 according to the director) provided by his long-time producer Jürgen Brüning. However, as Bruce started to gain recognition as a pornographer and artist, ￼(meaning more money was available to fund his projects) LeBruce would soon discard his early New Wave aesthetics and even reject his avant-garde tradition (Gerontophilia, 2013) while managing to retain a strong socio-political tone in his films; attacking like Jean-Luc Godard “the values of Western capitalist society” 2 (Otto, or Up with Dead People, L.A. Zombie) as well as fascism (No Skin off My Ass, Skin Flick), American imperialism and heteronormative behavior (The Raspberry Reich); always pushing for a revolution of some kind, be it sexual, political or ideological (Pierrot Lunaire, The Raspberry Reich, Gerontophilia). As he tells FlavorWire3: “I let my imagination go really crazy– and very specifically, eschewed political correctness. It made me a lot of enemies in the gay world. A lot of people thought my films were not a good representation of homosexuals.”
That may be, perhaps, one reason (besides the porn factor) why B. Ruby Rich, author of “New Queer Cinema,” a book that acts as “a record of a time, the 1990’s … and a subject, the New Queer Cinema, and the decades and lineages of representation to which they gave rise,” doesn’t mention Bruce LaBruce even once; regardless of him fitting precisely in what Rich once called “Homo Pomo” to refer to “the postmodern theories then current.” She expands: “It was a style favoring pastiche and appropriation, influenced by art, activism, and such new entities as video.” Not that LaBruce would have really cared. A self described “outsider,” Bruce LaBruce was greatly inspired by the punk scene of the 80s and “expressing politics through (punk’s) style.” The punk scene ￼however, as he soon discovered, was quite homophobic so he aligned with the “queercore” movement (an offshoot of punk), rejecting even “the queer activism that was going on at the time, because it seemed to be heading in this very assimilative direction.” LaBruce, who usually refers to his mentor Robin Wood– “a gay Marxist feminist” professor at York University, to back up his ideological roots; accompanied by his “feminist / lesbian” friends, found himself torn between a sexist gay culture not very friendly to lesbians and a homophobic punk movement where he couldn’t really be free. This is the set-up that informed his groundbreaking debut No Skin Off My Ass and which filtered through his second film Super 8 1/2 but in a chaotic, almost delusional yet at times brilliant way; in which LaBruce took the chance to delve into his own madness and still found the strength to “finish the film,” as he shared with us after the screening at MoMA, making allusion to the personal challenges that he endured, such as the break-up with his partner– who had been the “centerpiece” of his debut film; an aspect of reality that became part of the plot of Super 8 1/2, as well as dealing with the pressures of coming up with a follow-up to No Skin Off My Ass, which Bruce LaBruce never imagined it’d become the cult film that it is.
If, as B. Ruby Rich says, Gregg Araki “was the bad boy of the New Queer Cinema” back in 1992, with L.A. Weekly naming him the “Guerilla Godard” after the release of The Living End; across the border in Toronto, Bruce LaBruce was still digesting the surprise success and at the same time harsh criticism that No Skin Off My Ass was gathering in the underground art scene; especially in Germany where the film was highly criticized for the portrayal of his Neo-nazi skinhead boyfriend. Perceived by most at the time as ￼merely a pornographic movie, his debut feature however, allowed LaBruce to garner extra funds for his second film. With a budget of about fifty thousand dollars, Super 8 1/2, actually shot on 16 mm, was released in 1994 gathering mixed reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “fitfully entertaining and often annoying” while the Village Voice called it “offensively funny, edgy and sometimes even erotic in spite of itself.”4 Even now, twenty years later, Bruce LaBruce himself is apologetic about the film. Introducing Super 8 1/2 at the MoMA retrospective, LaBruce confessed that in hindsight he should have cut the film much shorter, explaining that back in the day he was “experimenting with the concept of boredom,” which at 100 min. long does feel like a stretch, especially when the film, taking its title and pseudo-plot from Federico Fellini’s classic 8 1/2, takes the time to go into details about each of the nine porno flicks “Bruce,” (LaBruce’s character in the film) “a porn auteur with avant-garde ambitions” had made and starred in. The 8 1/2 makes reference in the movie directly to the fact that Bruce “lost interest in making porn while shooting (his) ninth movie”, thus calling it a half film; yet more obvious phallic connotations of the title are also thrown in as “Googie” the lesbian art-porn filmmaker who is Bruce’s protagonist in the film, makes reference to Bruce’s “optimistic ideas about his endowment.” As a matter of fact, little is left to the imagination in that department as Bruce himself becomes a subject of exploitation in the film: “How do you become a porn star? You blow” he tells us looking straight at the camera.
Certainly there’s plenty of “blowing” in Super 8 1/2, yet, if the very first shot is of any indication– Bruce appears walking alone in some sort of patio (which later in the film is revealed as the exterior of a mental health hospital) wearing a white straight-￼￼jacket; the dimensions of the word “blow” take a whole new meaning. This came to my mind strongly watching L.A. Zombie (2010) as Erik Rhodes, a New York porn icon and one of the stars in the film, appeared looking ‘huge’ as I always remember him– clearly at the top of his game, only to pass away two years later of a heart attack fueled by “his rampant steroid use,” which he openly talked about in his now closed Tumblr page, along with “stories of winding up in psychiatric wards after crystal meth binges.”5 Madness, self-destruction and abuse, through drugs or using the body as a tool of sexual abuse and exploitation, seem to be common stories among porn stars; whom regardless of all these traits, are still regarded with a certain admiration within the gay community, although much stronger criticism against this type of “gay life” has emerged in social media after several relatively “young” gay porn stars in New York City were found dead conspicuously of heart attacks, drug overdoses and suicides; which prompted OUT magazine to write about the topic in 2013 as news that Arpad Milos, “a highly successful porn star and escort” had taken his own life in his apartment on the Lower East Side.6
Regardless, whether Bruce LaBruce, who has openly called porn stars “the last gay radicals,” meant to shed some light on the dangers of becoming an “adult” performer in Super 8 1/2; such conclusion may fall short in the larger scheme of things for he did not stop working with porn stars; as a matter of fact it is only in 2013 with Gerontophilia that he got to work with a casting agency for the very first time. What Super 8 1/2 did was ￼liberate LaBruce from performing explicit sexual roles himself. A self-described “reluctant pornographer,” Bruce LaBruce ended up moving to L.A. after his sophomore film, in order to “breathe some fresh air” and work on “Hustler White,” (1996) perhaps his most popular film, that meant to “document” the hustling scene of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. But the repercussions of Super 8 1/2 didn’t end there. As a matter of fact, with his newly found “freedom,” LaBruce (perhaps unknowingly but that looking back appears as almost carefully planned) started to map a line of follow-up films that would cement his status as a true auteur.
Already observed in No Skin Off My Ass and Super 8 1/2, the making of a film within the film, or someone else taping events in the film, will reappear again in The Raspberry Reich (2004) as “a group of leftist German radicals plot to kidnap the son of a wealthy banker,” with the purpose of videotaping his captive having sex with the male members of the group and blackmail the banker’s father. In this film, the spirit and image of Che Guevara is widely exploited, his iconic face plastered against a huge wall; a visual element that will reappear in Gerontophilia, albeit in the image of Mahatma Gandhi. The use of these “pop” images can be traced back as early as his debut feature but it was in Super 8 1/2, with Andy Warhol as a strong source of inspiration, that the postmodern use of pastiche takes on its fullest expression. Also groundbreaking, was the flexibility in gender roles and the shift of power dynamics which became common traits among the characters in the world of LaBruce that in Super 8 1/2 reached a level of urgency that makes the film almost incendiary. Such is the case of the film within the film “Submit to my Finger” in which a woman fists a man. Women, in LaBruce’s films, are powerful and ￼irreverent regardless of the overt physical vigor of the men.
Perhaps this is most clearly portrayed in Skin Flick (1999) in a sequence that made one middle-aged man, sitting on first row at the theater at MoMA, scream out of his lungs: “This is pure crap! MoMA has gone down the toilet!” after which he bolted out of the theater while the rest of us applauded as if the whole theater had long been waiting for an outburst like this to happen. What seemed to have bothered this man the most was the language that the “only” woman in the film was meant to use: a series of insults thrown directly at the camera (at us) that went on, non-stop, for about a minute, perhaps. This moment was recycled from Super 8 1/2, from a “screen test” scene in which one of the “Friday Sisters” is being told to shout all kinds of insults at the camera, but never to the extend seen in Skin Flick. Elsewhere, Super 8 1/2 also introduced the recurring shots at cemeteries; which later would give birth to Otto from Otto; or Up with Dead People (2008) the first zombie character in LaBruce’s first take on the “dead living among us”; the same burial ground to which two years later, porn megastar François Sagat, would return to in L.A. Zombie.
At the Q&A following the screening of Super 8 1/2 at MoMA, Bruce LaBruce’s main producer Jürgen Brüning asked the director if Bruce was happy with the way his sophomore film came out at the end. In a truthful moment of silence, Bruce didn’t hide his discomfort at not being able to answer with a simple yes. Clearly, making Super 8 1/2 was a great challenge to the Canadian auteur, for up to that point he had invested heavily in his own image and his personal life in order to make his films; causing perhaps a great amount of distress and self-doubt, which is what the film is ultimately about. No doubt that looking back in time, Bruce may still find a sense of discomfort in revisiting his past now temporarily under the scrutiny of a new generation of gay viewers, that unlike his, appears to the director as being now more concerned with presenting themselves as “well-behaved, exemplary homosexuals,” a perhaps stereotypical yet on the surface, relatively accurate assessment of contemporary gay society, now that gay marriage is a reality in most of the United States and across several nations around the globe.
Yet, by the end of the retrospective; with most of the screenings, especially the weekends, sold out; Bruce LaBruce came out triumphantly. “The MoMA retrospective is a little bit of a vindication for me, in a way” confessed the writer-director to FlavorWire. “If you stick to your guns long enough and not feel intimidated or influenced by the mandates of these institutions, then it can pay off in the long run,” he concluded. The kind of mantra that MoMA itself is trying hard to live by.
1. MOMAs Expansion and Director Draw Critics
2. Cook, David A. “The New Wave.” A History of Narrative Film. W.W. Norton & Co Inc, 2008.
3. “I’m More Into Outsiders Than Insiders”: Auteur Bruce LaBruce on His Queer Canon, Porn, and Why Zombies Are Anti-Capitalist
4. Super 8 1/2 Archive. Utopia Parkway.
5. An Early Death but Perhaps Not a Surprise
6. The Porn Problem